Connections: Grand Theory Of Integration

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle May 2012, Vol. 53, No. 5, p. 44

I decided to improve myself and expand my mind. Prompted by my son’s interest in multiple universes, I picked up a book on physics called ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos.” The book goes into detail about relativity and quantum theory. Both theories came into being when our ability to measure and understand things got more sophisticated.

It turns out that Newton’s laws don’t work if you are thinking really big, meaning the universe (relativity) or thinking really small, meaning subatomic particles (quantum theory). Relativity does a great job of explaining the universe (which is expanding by the way). Quantum theory maybe, I think, could be arguing that things can be both particles and waves (I’m not quite as clear on this quantum theory stuff). The author also points out that these two theories don’t mesh well. Much of the research in physics is in fact about trying to develop a grand theory that will integrate both relativity and quantum theory in a coherent way.

After attending a Society of Ecology Restoration (SER) Conference in New York and the BioCycle Conference in Portland, I would say that integrating the big stuff and the little stuff is a mystery for more than just physicists. At the SER meeting, the best talk I heard was by a graduate student from Canada, J. Scott MacIvor, who spoke about green roofs as a habitat for bees in city landscapes. He is monitoring bee colonization in different urban habitats including community gardens and green roofs across North America (http://www.tobee.ca/). It turns out bees that try to make homes in these roof top gardens often abandon their nests. They build their nests from leaves and the energy required to carry those leaves all the way up to the roof on many of these buildings that now have green roofs is just not worth the effort. Only a few of the bees — obviously the strong ones — are able to maintain their homes up high.

A few weeks later at the BioCycle conference, I heard David Batker of Earth Economics talk about understanding the value of ecosystem services. He discussed how our current economic paradigm, the economics of stuff or more formally the economics of goods and services, needs to be replaced by an economic model that values and recognizes nature. Batker talked about fresh water as one service and he also talked about bees and the value of pollination. I don’t remember how many millions and millions of dollars pollination is worth, but it is a big number because bees do really important things. Things like making sure that the cherry trees will actually produce cherries. And now we have exhausted bees because they’re trying to make homes too far from the ground.

At the first talk I sat there feeling horrible. All of those wonderful green roofs and it turns out that what they are really doing is wearing out the bees. My first thought was that we need to stop making these roofs so that the bees will stay near the ground and get enough rest. After the second talk, I just sat there overwhelmed by the value of something that I had taken for granted. I was also overwhelmed by the realization of the value of just one component of this vast natural system. My thought here was that we need more bees, lots and lots of bees. A little picture of bees on the roof gardens above a certain height in Toronto, and the enormous picture of bees across the planet pollinating flowers and fruit trees. Quantum theory and relativity — all about bees.

Little And Big Picture Divide

In fact this discrepancy between the little picture and the big picture is dividing environmental scientists and activists in much the same way relativity and quantum theory is dividing physicists. Right now many of those concerned with the environment are focusing on the equivalent of the subatomic particle and losing site of the galaxy around us. While it is true that we have a lot to learn about that metaphoric subatomic particle, by focusing on this and this alone, we have the potential to forget about the larger scale and likely much, much more critical galaxy that we live in.

I can use the bee example to illustrate what I am talking about. As I said earlier, my first reaction to hearing the talk about the bees on the roofs was that we needed to stop making these roofs to protect the bees from getting tired. Creating a habitat that would lure the bees up from the ground was an environmentally bad thing as it would likely result in killing bees. With this perspective dominating my reasoning, I had lost site of the fact that cities without green roofs or much green of any kind have lost all sorts of ecosystem services. I had lost sight of the fact that expansion of urban areas was destroying a wide range of ecosystems and many more bees than the ones that happened to wander up past the fourth floor of any particular building. I had lost sight of the fact that the bees on the green roofs are just one of many facets of these structures that make them environmentally beneficial. I had lost sight of the forest while focusing on the bee (bad pun I know).

A more appropriate response would be to continue to construct these green roofs while simultaneously studying how bees behave. This knowledge can then be integrated into optimizing habitat for bees on the lower buildings where constructing nests won’t wear them out. This way we can have all of the benefits of the green roofs and over time, optimize select roofs and other green areas within cities to maximize habitat and increase populations of these critical pollinators.

This column is not centered on quantum theory or bees for that matter. However, the metaphor works for a wide range of topics that I often talk about. Here’s an example. A major focus of public concern about land application of composts and biosolids has been the potential for us to contaminate soils, plants and people with parts per billion concentrations of compounds like pharmaceuticals and personal care products. In many cases, it isn’t known if these compounds that people are worried about can or will actually cause harm to soils and plants.  It is true that no plant has ever come into contact with carbamazopine (an anticonvulsive pharmaceutical) in a natural environment. Many people think that the right thing to do is to stop using compost and biosolids to protect the plants in case it turns out that these compounds can have a negative impact. And as a result of this concern, much of the research on these materials has focused on the fate of a wide range of these compounds in the environment.

While this is important to understand, it is critical to remember and also focus on the benefits of these soil amendments. Because even as we are adding these parts per billion to an acre of soil, we are destroying soils at rates equivalent to tons per acre. And as Chad Krueger of Washington State University pointed out at that same BioCycle conference (different plenary session), these amendments are our best tool to reverse that destruction. Stopping land application of organics because of the things in them that might hurt ecosystems will end up destroying ecosystems and us at a much faster rate than continuing to use these amendments to enrich soil. I am not against research on these compounds. What I am against is losing sight of the stars above and the big picture as we lurch our way towards a fuller understanding of the value of ecosystems on both the relativity and the quantum scale.

Sally Brown — Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle — authors this regular column. Email Dr. Brown at slb@u.washington.edu.

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